Fennel is a member of the Umbelliferae family, the members of which include parsley, caraway, dill, cumin and anise. Best known for its culinary uses, fennel is thought to be Mediterranean in origin, but now grows in regions and countries as far flung as eastern Europe — Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary; Mediterranean regions — Greece, Turkey, Italy; Central Europe — France, Germany; and in the east in Egypt, India and China.
Fennel, Dill and Aniseed
Fennel is very much like dill to look at. In taste, however, fennel has a more aniseed-like flavour that is reminiscent of anise and star anise. The flavour of fennel, however, is less strong than either of the aforementioned spices.
Fennel and anise also have a similar ancient history dating back to their use in ancient Egypt. Fennel and aniseed are sometimes mistaken for each other due to their similiar appearance.
Etymologically, the word fennel has developed from a diminutive foenum, meaning little hay. The original Latin word for the plant was ferula. This word now indicates the genus name of a similiar plant.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus concealed the fire of the sun in a hollow fennel stalk and stole it from the Gods to bring it down to earth for the human race. The famous battle of Marathon was fought on a field of fennel, and was named for this herb. It was also given as an honour to Pheidippides, the runner who ran the distance that is today known as the "Marathon" (courtesy the award of fennel) to deliver the news of the Persian invasion to Sparta.
Pliny believed that it improved eyesight. Thus, fennel juice was used as an effective cure for defective vision, night blindness and cataract. It was the custom to wash the eyes of a new-born baby with fennel water. In medieval Europe, fennel and St John's wort were used together to ward off evil. This belief may be an offshoot of fennel's use as an insect repellent. It has been called the “meeting seed” by the Puritans, who would chew it during long church services.
The bulb, leaves and seeds of the fennel plant are all used in food across the world. Fennel pollen is the most potent form of fennel, but it is exceedingly expensive. The feathery leaves and the seeds have a slight aniseed flavour. Both leaves and seeds are used in a variety of recipes, and the leaves are also used as a garnish.
As a herb, fennel leaves are used in French and Italian cuisine in sauces for fish. The English use fennel seeds in almost all fish dishes, especially as a court bouillon for poaching fish and seafood. In Provence, fish like grey mullet and bream are often flambéed on a bed of fennel stalks. The leaves can be used in salads and in stuffing, and the stems can be cooked as a vegetable. The seeds have a slight liquorice taste.
The fennel bulb may be used raw in salads or cooked.
Also used in baking and in patisserie, fennel is used to flavour breads, cakes and confectionery. It is an ingredient of the Chinese Five Spices Powder, as well as the Indian (Bengali) Panchphoran. Several liquors are flavoured with fennel, including fennouillette, akvavit, gin and Pastis.
The leaves of fennel are said to have the ability to act as a digestive, appetite enhancer and are considered very marginally diuretic. The seeds are supposedly laxative and an aphrodisiac. Apparently, the fennel seed is also lends itself to excellent respiratory tonics. The essential oil of fennel is extracted from its seeds and is used in anti-stress therapies.
In Germany, the fennel seed is licensed as a standard medicinal tea for dyspepsia. It is also used in cough syrups and in honeys.
Following are some therapeutic uses of fennel:
- Digestive disorders: An infusion of fennel seeds is useful as an anti-flatulent, and for the treatment of indigestion and biliousness. Chewing the seeds after meals is a common practice in India, given their usefulness in preventing bad breath, indigestion, constipation and vomiting. A weak tea prepared from fennel seeds is useful in helping small children digest carbohydrates, as also in relieving colic.
- Anethole: Fennel volatile oil contains anethole, which helps release muscular spasms. This compound is what makes fennel an efficacious anti-flatulent. Studies in animals show that anethole, which is a powerful anti-oxidant, also prevents cancer in laboratory animals and preseves their liver from toxin damage.
- Source of Vitamin C: The fennel bulb is also an excellent source of Vitamin C, a water soluble anti-oxidant that reduces cell damage. A reduction in Vitamin C intake is linked to the increase in the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
- Nutrient source: Fennel provides folate (Vitamin B), fibre and potassium. Fibre decreases the incidence of colonic cancer, folate levels help prevent heart attacks and potassium lowers blood pressure. One cup of fennel provides 10.8 per cent of the daily value for fibre, 5.9 per cent of the daily value for folate and 10.3 per cent of the daily value for potassium
- Respiratory disorders: The juice of fennel leaves is useful in the treatment of asthma and bronchitis. Eating figs with fennel is said to help coughs, bronchitis and lung abscesses.
- Menstrual disorders: Fennel seeds help regulate and promote menstruation and helps in the treatment of menstrual pain.
- Eye disorders: Fennel tea is used to bathe and soothe weakened, sore and inflamed eyes. Fennel leaf juice with honey is said to help cure conjunctivitis.
- Other uses: A strong brew of fennel may be used in a face pack to rejuvenate the skin.
Florence fennel is very similiar to ordinary or common fennel. The plant is different — short, about 1ft in height with a swollen leaf base. The leaf base is eaten and is celery-like in mouthfeel. Apart from the leaf base, the whole leaf is also used as a garnish. Florence fennel is also known by other names, notably the Italian name finocchio.
Florence fennel was one of the three main herbs (the others being absinthe and wormwood) used in the preparation of Absinthe, a drink which is much maligned due to its reputation as a hallucinogenic and psychoactive beverage. Absinthe was an alcoholic drink that began as a medicinal tonic in Switzerland and became very popular by the late 1800s. Absinthe was the precursor to the generic Anis/Pastis drinks (such as Pernod and Ricard). The ban on Anis (earlier Absinthe) was lifted in 1919 and there has been some revival in consumption. Many modern preparations are marketed under the name "Absinthe", but do not make use of fennel as did the traditional recipes.
Florence fennel is an ingredient in some Italian and German salads. It can also be served as a vegetable. The preferred method of preparation is braising. It can also be blanched and/or marinated, or cooked in risotto.
- Larousse Gastronomique
- The Book of Ingredients: Philip Dowell and Adrian Bailey; Penguin/ Mermaid Books 1993
- Indian Spices and Condiments as Natural Healers: Dr. H.K. Bakhru: Jaico Books
- The International Guide to Drinks
- Encyclopedia of Spices
- Fennel - the Digestive and Stimulating Mouth Freshener
- A Modern Herbal
- All Natural Fennel Pollen